Toulouse scrum half Romain Pallares led Spain to victory with a hat trick of tries to help overcome a stubborn Russian side who, despite conceding seven touchdowns to four, refused to surrender the initiative in Valencia, in the opening game of European Championship B.
The hosts held a slender two point lead going into the final 10 minutes when Pallares audaciously chipped over the Russian defence from 30 metres out, won the race to the ball, regathered and sailed over behind the posts, Luc Franco with his first successful of three shots at goal.
“Full credit to Russia, we knew they were going to be a big, physical side and they never took a backward step,” said Spain head coach Darren Fisher.
“I couldn’t be prouder of our defensive efforts. I knew we could play a little and it’s a joy to see our domestic players perform in this international arena.”
On a beautiful 25 degrees afternoon, the lead changed hands five times in the first half, veteran stand off Aleksander Lysokon missing an early penalty after Spain were caught offside, on the back of the first of a number of plunging runs from second rower Vladislav Lesnikov.
Spain hit back, Pallares and Anthony Delgado setting Palau centre Alex Doutres into a gap out wide, the conversion missed by Franco.
Doutres knocked on when Spain spread the ball from the re-start and he would have been clear, Lysokon darting over from close in and goaling to give his side the lead approaching the 20 minute water break.
Doutres’ second, following smart work from hooker Chris Lopez and Raul Simo’s great offload edged Spain back in front, Pallares missing the extras.
Russia’s best move saw Iustin Petrushka superbly keep the ball in play, returning the ball to Boris Voloskov, Lysokon with a precise cross kick to the corner where Ilia Danilov dotted down the ball untouched; Lysokon with a fine touchline conversion, putting his side 12-8 ahead.
The Russians knocked on at the play the ball from the second tackle of the re-start, Pallares with a show and go from the scrum, Richard Garcia goaling to edge Spain narrowly in front at the break.
The visitors enjoyed their most concerted spell just after the break, Antonio Puerta with a try saving tackle to keep Lysokon out and Dmitrii Leskov’s long pass just eluding Danilov and going into touch.
Delgado missed a penalty but, on a last tackle play, Pallares chipped ahead, Voloskov failed to gather in the in-goal and Pallares gratefully dropped on the ball.
In the next set, Pallares again took to the boot early in the tackle count, Hadriel Mehamed in midfield volleyed the ball forward and Franco won the race to the ball for a sensational score, Delgado again wide with the conversion.
Kevin Aparicio, otherwise a threat throughout, lost possession and, on the back of a penalty, Russian skipper, prop Sergey Konstantinov powered over from close in; Lysokon again with the conversion.
Russia almost immediately gave away possession and conceded a penalty, Franco and Delgado allowing Puerta to spin across, this time Miguel Olivares wayward with the conversion.
Spain spilled the ball, CSKA’s Leskov picking up and going 40 metres, Lysokon maintaining his perfect attempts with the boot to bring it back to 26-24.
Pallares saved his best to last, and although Lysokon’s chip got a second set and Ivan Troitskiy and Kirill Bozhko went close, Igor Abramov spilled the ball and the final chance for the visitors to salvage the game was gone.
Russia return home to face Serbia next week, whilst the Spaniards will go to Belgrade the week after to determine which two nations will remain on the 2021 World Cup trail.
Denis Koralev, head coach of Russia noted: “We were not really ready at this level, we had a lot of new players and they don’t all understand yet how we are trying to play.
“It will be a very hard game against the Serbians.”
Luc Franco, Daniel Morales, Antonio Puerta, Alex Doutres, Hadriel Mehamed, Daniel Garcia, Romain Pallares, Carlos Font, Chris Lopez, Adriá Alonso, Anthony Delgado, Kevin Aparicio, Raul Simo
Substitutes: Aitor Romero, Miguel Olivares, Juan Mudarra, Rafael Garcia
Tries: Doutres (11, 25), Pallares (34, 53. 70), Franco (56), Puerta (64)
Goals: Franco 1/3, Pallares 0/1, R. Garcia 1/1, Delgado 0/2, Olivares 0/1
Iustin Petrushka, Ilia Danilov, Igor Abramov, Boris Voloskov, Andrey Lavrushin, Aleksander Lysokon, Denis Tuilenev, Sergey Konstantinov, Aleksander Naumov, Kirill Bozhko, Dmitrii Leskov, Vladislav Lesnikov, Ivan Troitskiy
Substitutes: Igor Chuprin, Veacheslav Eremin, Andrey Perin, Dmitrii Tarasenkov
Tries: Lysokon (18), Danilov (29), Konstantinov (61), Leskov (66)
Goals: Lysokon 4/5
Half time: 14-12
Referee: Geoffrey Poumes (France)
Man of the match: Romain Pallares